by Msgr. Stuart Swetland
“Praise be to thee, my Lord.” This is the beginning of St. Francis’ hymn in celebration of the wonder of God’s creation. It is also the inspiration of the title of Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, “Laudato Si’.”
Some people — Catholic and non-Catholic alike — were surprised (or even a little confused) by the fact that Pope Francis chose in his latest encyclical to focus so much on what many consider a political matter — environmental justice.
But from the beginning of his pontificate, it’s been clear that even the name Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio chose to take reflected his concern for the poor and the environment. As the Holy Father himself explained at his first press conference:
“Some people wanted to know why [I] wished to be called Francis. Some thought of Francis Xavier, Francis de Sales and also Francis of Assisi. I will tell you the story,” said the pope. “During the election I was seated next to Archbishop Emeritus of Sao Paolo and Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for the Clergy Cardinal Claudio Hummes, a good friend, a good friend!”
“When things were looking dangerous, he encouraged me,” Pope Francis continued. “And when the votes reached two- thirds, there was the usual applause, because the pope had been elected. And he gave me a hug and a kiss and said, ‘Don’t forget the poor!’”
“And those words came to me: the poor, the poor,” the pope told the gathered reporters.
“Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end,” he continued. “Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi.
“For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we?
“He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man.”
“How I would like a church which is poor and for the poor!” Pope Francis concluded.
These same themes are found in “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” (LS).
Of course, Pope Francis is not the first pope to make our care for the environment a central part of his social teaching. St. John Paul II stated in his World Day of Peace message on Jan. 1, 1990, that one cannot be truly “pro-life” without being committed to protecting and preserving the environment:
“At the conclusion of this message, I should like to address directly my brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church, in order to remind them of their serious obligation to care for all creation. The commitment of believers to a healthy environment for everyone stems directly from their belief in God the Creator, from their recognition of the effects of original and personal sin, and from the certainty of having been redeemed by Christ. Respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of creation, which is called to join man in praising God (cf. Ps 148: 96).”
Benedict XVI put this teaching into practice by insisting that Vatican City State become the first nation in the world to be “carbon neutral,” installing solar panels and purchasing carbon offsets to achieve this goal.
While Pope Francis’ teaching is not something new, what is original in LS is the force and the insistence on the interconnectedness of all things that the pope is bringing to questions about the environment. To those focused on the church’s consistent ethic of life, he is insisting that care for the environment must be part of a pro-life ethic.
To those committed to the social teaching of the church, he is insisting that integral human development cannot be separated from care of creation. And to all who care about the poor, Pope Francis reminds us that it is almost always the poor who suffer the most from environmental deterioration.
As a teacher, I have often found that answering questions can be the best way of instructing and informing. Thus, below, I have attempted to answer some of the most common questions that I have received concerning LS.
What is an encyclical?
An encyclical is technically a “circular” letter from the Holy Father sent to all the bishops of the world (or to a specific region of the world) in union with the Holy See. It is one of the most authoritative ways that the pope teaches, and all Catholics are required to give its teachings in the areas of faith and morals at least a religious assent of mind and will (cf. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (“Lumen Gentium”), 25).
Why did Pope Francis choose the environment as a topic for an encyclical?
The Holy Father believes strongly that there is an environmental crisis due to humankind’s irresponsible abuse of creation. He writes at LS 2: “This sister (the earth) now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail’ (Rom 8:22).”
How long has the church been teaching about ecology?
The call to environmental stewardship has been part of the Judeo-Christian ethic since its very beginning. Foundational to the creation stories at the beginning of the Book of Genesis is the role assigned by God to humans to cultivate, serve and protect God’s creation. One of the devastating results of sin is the disruption of humanity’s foundational relationships: with God, with other humans and with sub-personal creation. More recently, the church’s social teaching has made environmental justice one of its major themes. It was clearly a major concern for St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops lists “care for God’s creation” as one of its seven major themes of Catholic social teaching.
What expertise does the church have in this area?
The church was instituted by Christ to carry on his mission to reveal to the world the merciful love of the Father. He empowered it to teach with authority everything that he had commanded of us. He breathed forth the gift of the Holy Spirit upon the church to protect the authenticity of its teaching.
Thus, the church teaches with the authority of Christ in the areas of what we are to believe (faith) and how we are to love (morals). The church claims no special competence in science or politics as Pope Francis clearly acknowledges: “There are certain environmental issues where it is not easy to achieve a broad consensus. Here I would state once more that the church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good” (LS, 188).
However, the church is an “expert in humanity” because Christ has revealed to us the essential reality of what it means to be human (cf. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (“Gaudium et Spes”), 22). As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states: “As an expert in humanity, she is able to understand man in his vocation and aspirations, in his limits and misgivings, in his rights and duties, and to speak a word of life that reverberates in the historical and social circumstances of human existence” (61).
What does the pope say about global climate change?
His teaching is mainly found in LS 20-26. Here is an excerpt from 23: “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. Concentrated in the atmosphere, these gases do not allow the warmth of the sun’s rays reflected by the earth to be dispersed in space. The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system. Another determining factor has been an increase in changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural purposes.”
Although I personally agree with Pope Francis’ read of the science of global climate change, I know some disagree. However, even if the science is mistaken, I would argue that all (or nearly all) of the Holy Father’s recommendations concerning conversion, conservation and stewardship of creation — especially his call to work tirelessly for alternative, renewable energy sources which can be shared with all, especially the poor — are still the most reasonable and prudent course of action.
What are the major dogmatic teachings found in LS?
In LS, Pope Francis starts at the beginning of it all. He reminds us that God created everything and sustains it in being. Each part of God’s creation has a purpose. Thus, Pope Francis quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church (339) against a “disordered use of things”: “Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection. . . . Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things” (LS, 69).
Francis also emphasizes the unique goodness of every human person created in the image and likeness of God. Quoting Pope Benedict XVI, Francis reminds us that “each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary” (LS, 65). We are all created for four fundamental relationships — with God, with each other, with oneself and with nature. These relationships ought to be lived in a “wonderful harmony” (LS 10). Sin disrupts this harmony, but grace can heal and restore it.
What are the major moral teachings found in LS?
The main moral teachings in LS flow from the simple fact that God is the Lord of everything. Thus, since the earth belongs to the Lord and God intended the goods of the earth for everyone, there is a universal destination of goods. All ownership comes with a “social mortgage” to be used to build up the common good (LS, 67-72). The poor should have a special place in our care and a certain priority in our social policies (LS, 158). The pope strongly condemns those who would argue for moral relativism (LS, 123) or who denigrate the unique goodness of each and every human by adopting anti- life political or social policies like abortion (LS, 117-120). What is needed is a renewed vision of the dignity of all humans: “There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself. There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology” (LS, 118).
Does this encyclical say anything about the liturgy?
The Eucharist is the place where heaven and earth meet in a perfect harmony of loving exchange. Pope Francis calls all Catholics to a full and active participation in the Sunday Eucharist (LS 236-37). He also emphasizes the importance of the Sabbath rest and the need to maintain an equilibrium for oneself and one’s family (and community). This equilibrium should extend to all creation, which also deserves and demands a Sabbath rest (LS, 68-71).
Does this encyclical say anything about our prayer?
An essential element of prayer is thanksgiving. Pope Francis emphasizes the importance of gratitude. Simple actions — like saying grace before meals (LS, 227) — can deepen our awareness of the goodness of God and the wonder of his creation. Pope Francis also encourages us to an attitude of receptivity. He reminds us that we receive everything from God as a gift and a grace. Jesus tells us again and again that everything he taught and did came from above (cf. Mt 11:27; John 3:27; Jas 1:17). The attitude of receptivity tells us that we must receive guidance from above to properly use all that God entrusts to our care. Only in prayer can we discern how God intends his gifts to be used to build up the kingdom.
What are your personal thoughts on the encyclical?
I find the encyclical beautiful, joyful and challenging. It is beautiful because it reminds us of the wonder of God’s good creation — especially the goodness and wonder of the crown of God’s visible creation: the human person.
It is joyful because it is rooted in the joy of the Gospel, which reminds us that God will recreate all things in Christ who has conquered sin, Satan and death.
It is challenging because it reminds us of our awesome responsibility to be outstanding stewards of God’s creation.
In the United States, we consume a vastly disproportionate amount of the world’s resources (with less than one-twentieth of the world’s population, we consume approximately one-third of the world’s paper, one-fourth of the oil and coal, one-fifth of the copper, etc. — all while producing half of the world’s solid waste).
Jesus teaches that “much will be required of the person entrusted with much” (Lk 12:48). We are very blessed in the United States. But Pope Francis is right: Consumerism is morally, spiritually and environmentally unhealthy. Our current levels of consumption are unsustainable.
We need, personally and communally, an ecological conversion — a change of lifestyle — that simplifies our lives and better protects the earth, our common home.
Top 10 takeaways from ‘Laudato Si’’
- We should give thanks to God for the gift of creation and the gift of life (LS, 227).
- We are the stewards of creation (LS, 236).
- We are called to change our lifestyles: If we are to be better stewards, we have to honestly reflect on our lifestyles (LS, 5; 23).
- There are numerous ways — some small, some large — we can better fulfill our vocation as stewards (LS, 203-236).
- We have not always been good stewards (LS, 17-59).
- Environmental problems usually impact the poor the most (LS, 25).
- Intergenerational justice: We should hand over to the next generation a living environment at least no worse off and, hopefully, much better than what we received (LS, 159-62).
- Everything is interconnected: Peace, justice for all and the preservation of the environment cannot be separated (LS, 89-92).
- Environmental justice is a concern for every vocation and every person because it is part of the human vocation to participate responsibly in God’s ongoing creative action (LS, 128-132; 217).
- The Eucharist joins heaven and earth and brings creation to its fulfillment (LS, 236).
Five helpful facts about Laudato Si’’
- It is read-able: While it is long, it is very accessible to the average reader.
- It roots the church’s teaching on the environment in both Scripture and Tradition.
- It demonstrates how consistent Pope Francis’ teaching is with his immediate predecessors (especially Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI).
- It emphasizes how everything in God’s creation is interconnected and that God has a plan for all of his creation.
- It calls for integral human development and commitment to a “human ecology” to overcome a “throwaway culture” that undermines respect for both the human person and the environment.
Suggested family activities
- Pray together before and after meals (LS, 227).
- To conserve energy, turn the AC temperature up and the heat down (LS, 55).
- Slow down. The pope speaks eloquently in this encyclical on the “rapidification” or hurried pace of society and its negative effects (LS, 18).
- Recycle (LS, 22).
- Research how much the family consumes and compare it to others (LS, 109).